By Betsy Kelleher
This month holds a new challenge for Lady and me. I have signed up for the ACTHA Competitive Trail Challenge on the fifteenth at Triangle H Farm! I had heard about ACTHA for several years and I had consistently deleted the emails—until I learned there was an event so close to us.
Such rides are usually six miles long, and each horse and rider entry is judged on how they handle six different obstacles. We won’t know which obstacles are on this challenge until just before we start the ride. There is a list of possible obstacles on the ACTHA website, however, so I’ve been working on those that Lady might have problems with.
I decided my first task was to teach Lady to pull. Of course I didn’t start out asking her to pull a log from the saddle! I began by dragging a long rope around Lady’s paddock where she could watch. I walked closer and closer to her, until I was walking beside her, dragging the rope between us. I wanted her to get used to the sound and sight of something beside her and behind her. I also took time to touch her all over with the rope, putting it over her back, letting it touch her legs and her body all over, even under her tail. I had an old saddle rack made of a piece of wood with a hook on one end, and I dragged it around her and then walked beside her as I dragged it behind us. I also backed her up while pulling the piece of wood toward her. I worked with her on the ground, until she was comfortable with all of it, before doing any actual pulling from the saddle.
There are other obstacles I need Lady to be ready for, and for each one, I will break it down into small tasks and work one step at a time. My husband wonders why I want to take on this kind of challenge. Perhaps I want someone to ride with, since he no longer has a horse to ride with me. Perhaps I work best with a goal. Perhaps I just want to do something that’s fun and exciting.
I am well aware that taking on this challenge represents a new level of relationship with my mare. After struggling with fearfulness for the past seven years, I finally realized the basic problem wasn’t just fear of riding Lady down a certain road—I was actually scared of Lady herself! Scared of what she would do, scared of her strength and her agile mind that reacts so quickly at times. I had gotten stuck in that fear, avoiding anything that might trigger a reaction from her. I became anxious whenever I heard a tractor or four-wheeler approaching, and I quickly took her elsewhere rather than deal with it. Then I finally somehow got past it. I rode her one day and truly enjoyed her smooth and eager gait, and I remembered why I loved this mare!
I started looking for training opportunities instead of avoiding them. Recently, I had Lady in the outdoor wash rack crossties when a riding lawnmower started up in a nearby yard. Lady started fidgeting and looking in that direction, and I ignored her. I realized then that I didn’t feel scared of her anymore. I kept sponging and hosing as if nothing else mattered, until she stopped fidgeting. It was one of those little things that suddenly felt like a great accomplishment.
I am working to be in charge whenever I am with Lady. Whether leading her or riding her, I want her to think I am her fearless leader (yeah, right!). Even in the common details, I want her to know I am there to guide her and keep her safe. To help me past those scary what-ifs, I try to think ahead and decide beforehand how I will handle it. If a tractor comes down the road, I will quickly get out of its way as far as possible, or maybe jump off and hold the bridle. If a riding lawnmower is working a yard ahead, I will stop and wait until it turns and heads back away from the road, rather than going on until Lady sees it coming directly toward her (and I know that plan works!). There is usually some way to handle a situation if you think it through. Being prepared helps calm fears. And yes, it’s the unexpected situations that will get you. That’s when you have to stay calm and give your horse a job to do—something to keep her mind on what you ask instead of the scary thing. I still have a lot of work to do in that area!
Meanwhile, I’m doing what I can to prepare Lady for the obstacles that might be on the trail ahead for us. I’ve heard it said that horses mirror our souls. If Lady is a mirror for me, perhaps her purpose is to help me see my strengths and weaknesses. And perhaps this is one way that God uses horses in our lives. Lady herself is my challenge to be the best I can be—very definitely a challenge to my courage and my confident leadership.
Getting over our fears requires time spent doing the right things. Both horse and rider need to find new enjoyment, new security in each other and a new realization of their relationship. I believe that applies to our relationship to God as well. We need to comprehend and trust His great power and love, and we need to find new excitement in serving Him and being in His Presence.
Each day, I feel God challenging me to be the best I can be, to take a step beyond where I’ve been. I know I can’t do it on my own. To make it real, I need His Spirit living within me, empowering me, guiding me, and connecting me to His will. I need His frequent inspiration and help, just as Lady needs my patient influence to help overcome her natural fears and instincts. Lamentations 3:22-23 tells us, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
In order for God’s Spirit to work in me and through me, I need to take time each day for prayer and Bible study, allowing God to influence my life. This basic truth is nothing new, but it is necessary. It is the secret to our inner strength.
(Originally published in the October 2011 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)